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The Psalm consists of two main divisions, one of meditation, which is complete in ten, and one of prayer in seven. The ten of the first part is divided by a five, the seven of the second by a two and a five. The formal arrangement is simple, is exactly carried through, and is easily seen.
The point from which the Psalmist sets out is furnished by the view which he takes of the transitory and perishable nature of human existence, and the pain with which he contemplates the nullity of life on earth. The Psalmist, or rather the Church in whose name he speaks, meditating upon the distress before God and in his light, is first driven thereby to cling inwardly and firmly to God, who, as the Eternal and therefore the Almighty, is the sole ground of hope for perishable and therefore feeble creatures; inside the narrow boundaries with which our being is enclosed, God alone can protect, help, and gladden: O Lord, thou art a dwelling-place to us, for thou art eternal, but we are perishable, Psalms 90:1-5.
But the transitory nature of man’s existence furnishes to meditation another important view: it teaches us the depths of our sinful corruption, and the greatness of the wrath of God against us: death, to which our short existence is a prey, is the wages of sin, Psalms 90:6-10.
The prayer of the second part rising upon the basis of the meditation of the first, is first connected with the thought to which prominence had been given in the second strophe, (because the prayer to be based upon the first strophe is dependant upon the fulfilment of the one to be referred to the second): May God grant that we may know his wrath, reflected to us as in a mirror in the transitory nature of our being, in its entire magnitude, and our own sins in all their depths, and that thus we may have a wise heart, which is afraid of sin, and lays hold upon the commandments of God, Psalms 90:11-12.
After this the second prayer rises, Psalms 90:13-17, (it being supposed that the first has been fulfilled), on the basis of Psalms 90:1-5. “Be thou our dwelling place,” here, grows out of “thou art our dwelling place,” there. May God remove the misery in the miserable, the severe sufferings with which he has oppressed the short existence of his people, and show himself again gracious toward them.
The Psalm is described in the title as a prayer. This description shows, as Amyraldus saw, that the kernel of the Psalm is the second part, and that the design of the first is to prepare the way for the second, and lay down a basis on which it may rest. For תפלה denotes only prayer in the proper sense, supplicatory prayer; and Delitzsch maintains without any ground at Hebrews 3:1, that it denotes “prayer in its widest, most comprehensive sense, all kinds of addresses to God,” 1 Timothy 2:1. It occurs only in the titles of such Psalms as Psalms 17, Psalms 86, Psalms 102, Psalms 142, in which prayer even in point of form constitutes the most prominent part; and even in the prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, the “accept the prayer of our distress” in Psalms 90:2, forms the middle point round which everything else is grouped. Assuredly the title points to a high privilege enjoyed by the people of divine revelation. The heathen, in view of the transitory nature of earthly existence, can only hang down their hands and utter cheerless lamentations: but the congregation of the Lord lifts up its hands in prayer to the merciful Father on high. Luther: “Although now Moses in the discharge of his duty kills, inasmuch as he shows us sin in connection with its punishment; yet as he calls this Psalm a prayer, he gives us to understand the medicine against death. And in this he excels in two ways all heathen writings. He amplifies death, or represents it as great, and yet so terrifies that he shows at the same time the hope of comfort, in order that those who are terrified may not be brought to despair. . . . He takes particular care so to act as that he may teach men to fear God, in order that when they are terrified before the wrath of God and before death, they may humble themselves before God and may thus be partakers of his grace. For it is impossible that a man be moved to fear God unless the wrath of God be revealed to him, which cannot be except through the revelation of sin.” All the fountains of consolation, which Revelation furnishes in view of the transitory nature of human life, are assuredly not opened up in our Psalm. It points only to the grace with which God refreshes his own people within the narrow boundary of this life; and the view beyond, full of salvation and grace, remains cut off. This fact is so troublesome to most of the old expositors, to whom among the moderns we may add Meyer and Stier, that they have made every effort to remove it. But it remains in spite of all these attempts,—attempts which cannot be made without destroying the clear train of thought, and, therefore, the practical power of the Psalm. And where is the good reason for endeavouring violently to set this fact aside? The Psalm teaches us many great truths in a forcible and impressive manner both of death and of the grace of God. Death it represents as the proof, exhibited in stern realities, of the fact that God is our only Saviour,—a fact well fitted to lead us to cling closely to him,—and as the wages of sin and the herald summoning us to repentance. It speaks of the grace of God towards those who give ear to the calls of this herald. Why then force upon it another truth of which it says nothing, which it does not deny, and for which it certainly everywhere prepares the ground out of which it may grow? For the knowledge of God [Note: Luther: “But when thou seest that the prophets and other holy men call upon God who is still beyond everything that man can see, wilt thou not see that they by such calling upon God, acknowledge that there is another life after this one—a life either of grace or of wrath.”] as eternal omnipotence and love is the foundation of the hope of eternal life; it pledges his power and his will to impart it to his own people. Compare vol. ii. page 52.
The title designates the Psalm as a prayer of Moses the man of God. The last designation is no empty title, it points to the dignity of the person as affording a security for the importance of his word. Luther: “As one who has such a duty assigned to him by God, so that we should believe in him and in his instructions no less than in God himself.” The designation considered in itself may very well have originated with Moses. Luther: “As when Paul calls himself the servant of the Lord, Romans 1:1, it is not pride but a necessary recommendation of his office.” David designates himself in the titles of Psalms 18 and Psalms 36 as the servant of the Lord, (compare the remarks made there), and in 2 Samuel 23:1 he calls himself “the man who was highly exalted, the anointed of the God of Jacob.” Notwithstanding as this designation does not occur in the books of Moses, so far as they were written by him, but only in the addition made by another hand, viz., the title of the blessing pronounced on the tribes in Deuteronomy 33:1, (compare the designation of Moses in the mouth of a cotemporary, Joshua 14:6), and as the same is the case with the corresponding designation, “the servant of the Lord” in Deuteronomy 34:5 (compare the Beitr. P. iii., p. 158), it is probable, (although the grounds are by means decisive), that the title was added by another person.
The paragraph, Psalms 90:13-15, serves to determine more exactly the time when the Psalm was composed. According to it, the people had already sighed for a long time under the pressure of severe suffering, and now pray that God at last would change this suffering into joy, and would again make himself known in his glory. This leads us towards the end of the 38 years punishment in the wilderness. The fulfilment of the prayer lies in the glorious events of the 40th year, and of the time of Joshua.
There are important internal reasons which may be urged in favour of the composition of the Psalm by Moses, as announced in the title. The poem bears throughout the character of high antiquity; there is no other Psalm which so decidedly conveys the impression of being the original expression of the feelings to which it gives utterance. [Note: Amyraldus: “But as this ode is most ancient, so it bears strong marks of the genius and character of antiquity. It is grave, full of majesty and authority, somewhat concise, adorned with various comparisons, splendid with figures, but these rare and little used, and for the understanding of which there is needed an extraordinary attention of mind.” Ewald; “The poem has something uncommonly striking, solemn, sinking into the depth of the Godhead. In contents and language it is throughout original and powerful; and as it is undoubtedly very old, it would have been universally considered as correctly derived from Moses, had we known exactly the reasons which guided the collector.”] There is, moreover, no other Psalm which stands so much by itself, in regard to its fundamental tone and peculiarities, for which parallel passages furnish so little kindred matter in characteristic peculiarities. On the other hand, there occurs a series of striking allusions to the Pentateuch, especially to the poetical passages, and, above all others, to Deuteronomy 32 (compare the exposition), allusions which are of another kind than those which occur in other passages in the Psalms, and which do not bear like them the character of borrowing. Luther, in the following quotation, intimates that even here the deep seriousness of the lawgiver may be seen: “Just as Moses acts in teaching the law, so does he in this prayer. For he preaches death, sin, and condemnation, in order that he may alarm the proud who are secure in their sins, and that he may set before their eye their sin and evil, concealing, hiding nothing.” The strong prominence given to the doctrine of death as the wages of sin is especially characteristic, a doctrine which is not of frequent occurrence in Scripture, and especially not so in the Psalms, and which is proclaimed as distinctly and impressively as it is here, only in the Pentateuch, Genesis 2 and Genesis 3, and in those ordinances of the ceremonial law which threaten death.
The reasons which have been adduced against the composition of the Psalm by Moses are of very little weight. The objection that Psalms 90:10, where the length of human life is limited to seventy, or, at the most, eighty years, stands opposed to Deuteronomy 34:7, according to which Moses reached the age of 120, is disposed of by the remark that Moses, throughout the whole Psalm, does not speak in his own name, but in that of the people. It is obvious from Deuteronomy 14:22-23, that among the Israelites at that time the exceptions to the general rule, as to the duration of human life, were much fewer than at ordinary times. Koester’s assertion that Psalms 90:15 supposes a long period of suffering, and scarcely applies to the Israelites in the wilderness, who rather beheld the glorious deeds of Jehovah, is disposed of as soon as we direct our attention to “that terrible oath with which God struck them in Numbers 14.” Eight-and-thirty years spent amidst the gradual destruction of men lying under the curse, were well-fitted to call forth the prayer, “Make us glad according to the days in which thou hast afflicted us, the years during which we have seen evil;” they are sufficient to explain “the melancholy view of life” which here meets us, and the dread earnestness “with which he instructs us of our melancholy necessities;” no glass was more suitable than this for giving a view of the common condition of human life. Finally, the assertion that the Psalm could not have been composed by Moses, because it resembles the other Psalms in language and general poetical structure, is an à priori assertion, which may be met, with at least as much force, by another, that Moses, “the fountain out of which all the prophets have drunk divine wisdom,” gave at first the tone no less for prophecy, Deuteronomy 32 and Deuteronomy 33, than for Psalm-poetry.
How little able modern criticism is to erect a new edifice, in room of one which it has arbitrarily destroyed, is evident even here, from the utter want of unanimity among those who doubt the composition of the Psalm by Moses, in determining its age. According to Ewald, the Psalm is very old, and certainly older than the age of David; according to Hitzig, it is much later; he places it in the year 150 of the Selencidae! Koester and Maurer will have it placed between these two dates, a little after the return from the captivity; on which Maurer very appropriately, and with great simplicity, remarks, “Yet this is very doubtful.”
The first part, that of meditation, Psalms 90:1-5: the transitory nature of human life points us to God as our only refuge. Ver. 1. O Lord, thou art a dwelling-place to us for ever and ever. Ver. 2. For before the mountains were brought forth and thou didst create the earth and the land, and from eternity to eternity, thou art, O God. Ver. 3. Thou turnest man so that he is beat to pieces and sayest: Turn, ye children of men. Ver. 4. For a thousand years are before thee as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night. Ver. 5. Thou earnest them away as with a flood, they are as a sleep, in the morning it vanishes like grass.
Psalms 90:1 contains the theme: we have no other helper and saviour except thee, O Lord; Psalms 90:2-5 its basis. The מעון has only one sense, that of habitation, which it maintains even when it is used of the caves and dens of the wilderness; and those translators are far wrong who set aside this expression, which is so peculiar, and must, therefore, have been selected with express design, and supply its place by refuge:—in the whole of Scripture the word is applied to God, only here, in Psalms 91:9, and in Deuteronomy 33:27, “God is a dwelling-place of old, and underneath are the everlasting arms,”—the feminine form is used there מעונה , the masculine here as at Deuteronomy 26:15. Even in Paul Gerhardt, God is named, “My house in whom I safely dwell.” Isaiah 4:6 shows where the point of comparison lies: “And there shall be a tabernacle for a shade before the heat, and for a place of refuge, and a covert from the storm and from rain.” It was probably the houseless wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness which made them sensible of the value of a habitation, that suggested the use of the figure. Instead of “thou art,” many translators give “thou wast,” and refer the whole verse to the grace of God which had been enjoyed by the people in early times, and especially by the patriarchs. But this translation is not required either by the preterite, “which often denotes general truths, which are rendered manifest by experience, and are in this way defined,” Ew. § 262, or by the בדר ודר , which is used as frequently of the future as it is of the past, comp., for example, Psalms 49:11. And against it we may urge, first, that by this translation the connection with what follows is destroyed: thou art our dwelling-place, for thou art eternal, and, therefore, almighty; but we are transitory, and, therefore, weak, and helpless; and second, that it is only in “thou art our dwelling-place,” that we can find a right basis for “ be thou our dwelling-place” in Psalms 90:13-17. God is also a dwelling-place in Deuteronomy 33:27. Finally, at the time of Moses; the history of the people had been too short as yet to admit of the expression, from “generation to generation” being suitable as applied to the past.
Psalms 90:2 is in reality connected with Psalms 90:1 by the for. The eternity of God serves in so far as a basis to the proposition “that he is the only saviour;” as to be eternal and to be God are inseparably bound together. Just as in the following verses the conclusion as to human weakness is silently drawn from the shortness of human life, so here the omnipotence of God is deduced from his eternity. Thus Luther in his day: “If we look at it, in a right way, it includes all the properties of the Godhead. For inasmuch as he is eternal, it follows that he is immortal, omnipotent, blessed, and wise.” The mountains are named first, because of all other created things they give, by their immoveable fastness, the deepest impression of originality; comp. “the eternal hills,” in Genesis 49:26, “the mountains of old and the eternal hills,” of Deuteronomy 33:15, Numbers 23:7, Habakkuk 3:6. ארץ , the earth is in opposition to heaven, תבל , the fruit-bearing land, (comp. at Psalms 24:1, Psalms 89:11),—a purely poetical word, the corresponding term in the Pentateuch being יבּ שה—is the opposite of “the sea.” In regard to ותחולל , after setting aside the arbitrary change תחוֹ לַ ל , and the altogether ungrounded assumption of Ewald, that “to move in a circle” stands poetically instead of “to be in the state of being born,” or “being originated,” we have only two remaining explanations, which require to be considered, the one that it is the third person singular,” and the earth and the land were brought forth” (comp. Genesis 1:11-12), and the other, that it is the second masculine, the address being directed to God,” and thou hast brought forth.” In favour of this last we urge that it is only according to it that we see any reason for the difference between ארץ and תבל—the earth was created by God on the second, and the land on the third day; and the earth is fruit-bearing only as תבל—that in this case, to be brought forth, and to bring forth, are placed most naturally together, as cause and effect (comp. Deuteronomy 32:18: “the rock that bore thee thou hast despised, and thou has forgotten God who brought thee forth:” God in this passage is, in like manner, termed מחולל , with reference, in the first instance, to Israel); finally, that, according to this explanation, it is very appropriately implied, that the being of God is not an existence merely, prior to all created things, but is the existence of the creator, prior to that of his creature, and all the more so, that his eternity is here alluded to on account of his omnipotence, which is really associated with it. Comp. Schleiermacher Glaubensl. § 67: “The eternity of God is to be understood only as the omnipotent eternity, as that in God, which, conditionates time itself, as well as all that is temporal.” The אל is not to be taken with Calvin, Ewald, and others, as a predicate: thou art God; but like אדני , in Psalms 90:1, as an address: thou art, O God. As in the following verses man’s feebleness and helplessness are deduced from the brevity of his life, so, from the eternity of God, his exclusive Godhead is here deduced, just as in Isaiah 44:6, “I am the first, and I am the last, and (therefore), besides me there is no God.” If we take אל as the predicate, the whole train of thought is destroyed: thou art our only refuge, for thou art eternal, and, therefore, omnipotent; but we are short-lived, and, therefore, feeble, wholly unable to bring about our own deliverance.
In Psalms 90:3, in opposition to the eternity of God, which renders him fit to be the habitation of his people, we have brought forward the transitory life of men, which drives them, feeble creatures, to this habitation as their only refuge. The דכא , according to most expositors, is a substantive, a poetical term for the “dust,” properly what is beat to pieces. But as דכא only occurs as an adj. in the sense of crushed, beat to pieces, and as, according to the other construction, one would expect, instead of עד , rather אל , we must rather consider that the “even to a thing broken to pieces,” is equivalent to “even to such a condition.” Junius has already given: eo usque, ut sit contritus. The expression is exactly analogous: “even to perishing,” for “till he comes to the condition of our perishing,” in Numbers 24:20; comp. Balaam, p. 190. The “return” of the second clause has its exact meaning assigned to it out of the expression: of the first, “thou turnest him back so that he is beaten to pieces,” and by the passage in Genesis 3:19 undeniably alluded to here, “till thou return to the dust from which thou wast taken, for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” exactly as in Psalms 104:29, “they return to their dust,” Job 10:9, “ thou wilt bring me to the dust,” Job 34:15, Psalms 103:14. Luther explains otherwise, and is followed by Tholuck: “It proceeds on this, that like as men daily die because of sin, so others are daily born always in the same condition as those who have died.” But besides the positive grounds which have been adduced on behalf of the translation given above, we may urge the שובו against this view; no return can be attributed to the new generation which comes in the room of the old. Many expositors, and among the last of these Meyer and Stier, explain the words of the return of the spirit of God. But in this case the whole connection of the first part would be broken, and the prayer of the second part, grounded upon the meditation here, would be unintelligible. According to this, the language here can apply only to the short and perishable nature of man’s being. For it is upon it that the prayer there is grounded, that God would not embitter, by extraordinary sufferings, the span of time allotted to man. The objection to our translation, that it is tautological (comp., for example, Psalms 102:26), and expresses what is perfectly well known, needs no refutation. It is evidently not this that has led to its rejection, but something wholly different, as Stier has openly acknowledged: “Should not Moses, the man of God, have known what is after death? Or if he knew it, is there any other passage in this Psalm in which it is expressed?”
Luther has given more correctly the sense of Psalms 90:4 than most modern expositors: “Moses exhorts us to rise above time, and to look upon our life with the eyes of God, so shall we assuredly say, that all the life of man is scarcely one hour long, even though it last the longest.” The “for” shows that the verse serves to ground the assertion indirectly contained in Psalms 90:3, as to the perishable and brief life of man. To man his life appears long; comp. “teach us to number our days,” of Psalms 90:12. He who has the number of seventy years before him, supposes that an eternity has been measured out to him. The Psalmist destroys, with a powerful stroke, such an illusion: “for how short is human life when it is seen with thine eyes, who seest all things as they are, and measurest the extent of our life by a correct standard? To thee a thousand years are what one day is to man, a night watch. If we lived then, instead of our poor seventy, which, at the best, is all that is measured out to us, a thousand years, what would these be before thee?” This divine estimate of the length of human life is made by all who have looked with a steady and clear eye upon eternity; they cannot sufficiently wonder at the stupidity of those before whom such a short human life stretches out into the infinite; the years dwindle down, in their estimation, to days and hours; comp. the noble poem of J. Neander, “How swiftly passes human life,” the most beautiful of all the Christian imitations of our Psalm.
According to the common view, the shortness of human life is shown by comparing it with the eternity of God, whereas, according to the exposition given above, the eternity of God is noticed only indirectly, inasmuch as, just because he is the Eternal, that time which is long to man appears short to him: a thousand years are in thine eyes what yesterday or a night-watch is in ours. (Bengel: as to a very rich man a thousand sovereigns are as one penny; so, to the eternal God, a thousand years are as one day.) It is decisive against the direct reference to God, that the years are by no means described as the years of God, but it is rather said, as a thousand years are before him. Then, on this construction, the “for” also occasions a difficulty, such, for example, as manifestly meets, us in Koester’s paraphrase: this cannot be otherwise, as thou art alone (?) eternal. The construction, as we give it, is exactly the same as an admonition to measure time, not by the human but by the divine standard, as in 2 Peter 3:8, “be not ignorant that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” The Lord looks upon time with altogether different eyes from those who live in time; what seems long to you is short to him; a divine day is like a thousand human years, and a thousand human years are like one divine day.
The יעבר כי is “when it passes by,”—the future expressing what is just ending, Ew. § 264. The night-watch which fleets past to those who are asleep like a moment, is added, as a second step in the climax, to the day which is spread out at greater length over labour. It is clear that, in ancient times, the night was divided into three watches; in Judges 7:19, mention is made of the middle watch. And Exodus 14:24, where the morning watch is spoken of, renders it evident that this division existed in the time of Moses.
In the ( Psalms 90:5) fifth verse the Psalmist proceeds in the description of the transitory nature of human life. The זרם , to flow as a stream (in Psalms 77:17, hence זֶ רֶ ם , a storm of rain), is here to carry away with a stream, to carry off with the tearing rapidity with which a storm of rain, in conjunction with the flood which it has occasioned, carries away everything; for, according to the sense of the noun and the verb, the flood must be noticed here, not as in itself, but as the product of a storm of rain; comp. the זרם קיר , “a rain-torrent of a wall,” which carries away walls, in Isaiah 25:4. Luther: “It is a fine full figure, by which is illustrated how the whole human family is driven away, as when a sweeping torrent of rain carries everything before it, one race or generation after another is hurried away like a roaring flood.” Jo. Arnd: “When thou seest a torrent sweep past, thus say, behold there my life flows past, and the water which has gone past never returns.” Perhaps the Psalmist alludes to the Deluge, in which he sees a figure of the common lot of men.
On “they are a sleep,” Luther: “We know that sleep is such a thing that it ceases ere we can perceive it or mark it; for, before we am aware that we have slept, sleep is gone and ended. Wherefore truly our life is nothing else than a sleep and a dream, for before we are rightly conscious of being alive, we cease to live.” Comp. Psalms 73:20, “like a dream on awaking,” Psalms 37:6, “only as an image walks man.” The sleep and the morning stand opposed to each other. The expression, “as grass,” is incidentally thrust in as the medium of connecting the first and the second part of the Psalm. It is taken up again at the beginning of the last clause in Psalms 90:6, and dwelt upon at greater length. The subject in יחלף is not the grass (De Wette and others: in the morning like grass which perishes), but the figurative sleep, man. Otherwise the clause, “as the grass,” would cease to be the incidental expression which alone it can be here, and would form a part of Psalms 90:6. The translation is much more to be rejected; in the morning it is like the plant which springs up. This destroys the obvious opposition between the sleep and the morning (by which the interpretation of the sleep, as the sleep of death, is set aside), and has, besides, against it, the fact that חלף , in Kal, has never the sense of to spring up. In the only other passage besides the one before us, which Ges. has adduced in favour of this sense, it has been set aside by Delitzsch, Habakkuk 1:11.
The second section of the meditative part is Psalms 90:6-10: death is the wages of sin. Ver. 6. In the morning he blooms and— perishes, in the evening he is cut down and withers. Ver. 7. For we disappear by thine anger, and by thy wrath we are terrified. Ver. 8. For thou settest our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance. Ver. 9. For all our days are spent in thy wrath, we complete our years like a thought. Ver. 10. Our life-time, it lasts seventy years, and if any one by strength, eighty years, and their strength is suffering and wickedness; for it is soon worn out and we flee away.— On Psalms 90:6, Jo. Arnd: “When thou seest a garden in blossom, it is as if God took a flower in his hand and said, behold this is what thou art, and thy whole life.” The subject in יציץ חלף and יבש is also here, as in יחלף in Psalms 90:5, man, the figurative flower, comp. Job 14:2, “like a flower he withers and is cut down,” Psalms 103:15, “as for man his days are as grass, like a flower of the field so he flourisheth; for the wind passeth over it and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.” The blossom of man is so short that it does not deserve to have a whole member of a verse devoted to it. Hence the expression, “and it perishes,” forms, as it were, a part of the first, and is more fully expanded in the second. The translation, “and springs up,” is all the less admissible that the springing up must precede the blossoming. The ימולל is the Pil. from מול . As God is throughout addressed, he cannot be the subject; we must consider the verb as used impersonally, comp. 2 Kings 22:38, 2K 21:36; Ezekiel 41:7. In reality, however, God undoubtedly is the agent who cuts down. To be cut off, which alone the form of the verb can denote, is more suitable than to fade, which several would violently thrust in in its stead, because it points, as does also the “to be terrified” of the following verse, to the violent nature of the destruction. In the parallel passages which have been appealed to, Psalms 37:2, and Job 14:2, the language in like manner refers to cutting down, and not to fading.
In Psalms 90:7, the Psalmist ascends from the melancholy fact which he had described in the ( Psalms 90:6) 6th verse to its yet more melancholy cause; that man’s life is so short is the consequence of the wrath of God, which he has drawn down upon himself by his sins, comp. Genesis 2:17; Romans 5:12. According to the passage before us, the terrible judgments by which those who proudly rebelled against the Lord in the time of Moses, were annihilated (comp., for example, Numbers 16), are only a reflection and an image of the common lot of humanity; there happened then, visibly and impressively, what is always going on secretly and unobservedly. The wrath of God eats away our life until after a little while it has completely consumed it. It is a remarkable peculiarity of revelation, that in this way it throws the blame of death upon men; for Psalms 90:8 th shows that the wrath of God presupposes and has for its foundation the guilt of men. If we do not see in death the wages of sin, our melancholy existence must necessarily awaken perplexing thoughts of God, and stifle all noble and child-like love towards him. The כלה is to disappear, to be annihilated. We are terrified, namely, before that dreadful death which destroys us; compare Psalms 104:29, and the noun בהלה of sudden death, Psalms 78:33, Isaiah 65:23.
The expression “thou placest our sins before thee,” in Psalms 90:8 stands in opposition to an overlooking, either arising from want of power to observe, (compare Jeremiah 16:17; Hebrews 4:13), or from want of hatred of sin, proceeding from that easy good nature which rationalism ascribes to God. Instead of שת the Keri has the correct reading. In the second clause, the reading עלמנו our secret, our secret sin, is better supported than the plural עלמינו , compare Job 20:11, a reading which the parallel passage alone has introduced. The term “our secret sin,” intimates that the domain of sin is much more extensive than that of human knowledge, either that of others or our own, and therefore points to the depth of human depravity. Even for the believer, sin has many dark parts, so that even he, in cases where he is not conscious of any guilt, cannot be sure that he is free from guilt, but must wait the judgment of God, “which shall bring to light the hidden works of darkness and render manifest the counsel of the heart,” compare Psalms 19:12; 1 Corinthians 4:4-5. Luther: “We should by all means especially mark this saying, that no man can know or see all his sins, especially if you regard the greatness of original sin. And it is no wonder. For who can sufficiently describe the single sin of unchastity which yet is known to every one? How much less can any one sufficiently know other difficult and subtle spiritual sins, such as impatience in adversity, blasphemy, and murmuring against God, &c.? O what a deep abyss is unbelief alone! On this account Moses well calls sin a secret thing, whose greatness no mind can comprehend. For as the wrath of God is, and as death is, so also is sin, an inconceivable infinite.” The מאור , according to most expositors signifies here light. But Genesis 1 makes a distinction between אור , light and מאור , a luminary, and the ascertained sense is here wholly suitable: the luminary of the countenance, because the divine countenance illuminates what was concealed, so that it lies clear and open.
The פנה in Psalms 90:9 is to turn round, to turn away, compare Jeremiah 6:4. All our days disappear, so that it is soon over with our whole life. “Through thine anger” belongs in reality also to the second clause. In this the כלה is not “to bring,” but “to bring to an end.” The הגה cannot signify a conversation, a tale: for the word always denotes something inward (comp. Gousset in Gesen.), and is never used of a conversation with another. As little can it denote a pure thought, for the noun in the two other passages where it occurs, Ezekiel 2:10, Job 37:2, stands for something loud, and the verb properly denotes not the pure thought, but what is intermediate between thought and discourse. The Psalmist compares human existence as regards its transitory nature, to a soliloquy which generally bears the character of something transitory and broken. The mind does not advance beyond single half-uttered words and sentences, and soon retires again into the region of pure thought. To such a transitory murmur and ejaculation is that human life compared which stupid dreamers look upon as an eternity.
As “the days of the years,” in Psalms 90:10, is a phrase of constant occurrence, particularly in the Pentateuch for “a life-time” (comp. Genesis 25:7, Genesis 47:8-9), and as ימים also occurs in Psalms 90:9 and Psalms 90:12, for “the whole extent of human life,” the idea of Calvin is to be rejected, that “the days of the years” is an emphatic expression, “because though time is divided into small portions, the number itself deceives us so that we expect to live a very long time.” The remark, however, of Michaelis is correct, “The nominative absolute is not without emphasis, because it calls forth expectation,” and also that of Koester, “the expression retarding the current of thought is intended to render prominent the contrast between the apparently numerous days of life, and their short sum at the end.” The expression “are in them,” is, “they contain the sum of seventy years in them.” “And if with strength,” is better explained by “if there is any one furnished with strength,—with a particularly strong constitution,” than by “if they, the days are furnished with strength.” As גבורה is also “strength,” “power,” we must reject such explanations as “if it comes high,” (Luther’s), and “if very strong.” Luther: “Men almost reach this time of life, therefore he sets it down as a common terminus and usual boundary. For what is beyond this is not worth being called a life, because then every thing that belongs to life ceases; men use neither meat nor drink with pleasure, are scarcely fit for any trade or work, and are kept at them only to their torment.” And their pride is only suffering and wickedness. The רֹ הַ ב occurs only here the noun, however רַ הַ ב occurs in the sense of pride in Job 9:13, Job 26:12, and the adjective רָ הָ ב proud in Psalms 40:4. The pride of the days, that of which they are proud or may be proud, is either the strong period of life
Calvin, “the sense is, that before men sink into old age, and while they are still in the very blossom of youth, they are involved in those many troubles, cares, pains, and anxieties to which mortal life is exposed”—or, the best, the most favourable condition of life, Luther, “when it is delightful.” It has been shown in the treatise on Balaam, that און always means wickedness, p. 112, ss.; Delitzsch, on Habakkuk 1:3, Habakkuk 3:7, has opposed this without sufficient ground. Here the wickedness denotes what must be suffered from the wickedness of others, as in the case of Abel from Cain. The confession of Jacob before Pharoah in Genesis 47:19, and also that of Lamech, Genesis 5:29, agree with what is here said as to the condition of human life. Luther: “The whole of life therefore is trouble and labour, with the single exception that these evils are alleviated by faith and hope in the Divine compassion in the case of those who have been born again, and are new creatures.” For we are driven rapidly away and we flee hence. This affirmation is by no means suitable as the basis of what immediately precedes. We must hence separate it by a semicolon, and connect the “for” with the main subject of the verse. “And their pride, &c.,” can be considered only as an offshoot thought, the subject of the Psalm being not the misery but the transitory nature of human life. The גז is usually translated, it goes away, it passes away. But as גוז in the only other passage where it occurs with certainty ( Psalms 71:6 is doubtful), Numbers 11:31, (a remarkable connection with the language of the Pentateuch) has the sense of “to bring,” “to drive;” and as there is no suitable subject in the preceding clause to גז in the sense of to pass away—the רהב cannot be the subject, as here manifestly the language applies to the brevity of human life —it is more suitable to take the verb impersonally, and translate “we are driven away,” comp. “we are cut off” in Psalms 90:6. In reality, however, it is God that drives away just as there it is God that cuts off. The חיש is an adverb, suddenly. To the sudden driving away, the fleeing corresponds suitably, as its consequence.
In the first strophe of the second main division, Psalms 90:11-12, there are appended to the doctrine of death as the wages of sin, the painful complaint that this relation in all its depths is so little known, and the prayer to God that he would cause this relation to be better known, and lead the heart to repentance. Ver. 11. Who knows the might of thine anger, and thy fury in proportion to thy fear? Ver. 12. To number our days, this do thou teach us, in order that we may obtain a wise heart.
On Psalms 90:11, Luther: “From this point he shows why and for whose known in the brevity of our existence, the power of death in all sake he had given this narrative, for the sake, namely, of unfeeling sinners, in order that they may be brought to a sense of their misery. For this is the greatest misery that we men live in such great manifold innumerable distresses, have such a short life, and are in perpetual danger, yea, certain prospect of eternal death, and yet do not feel all this nor know it sufficiently. Who can sufficiently express such stupidity!” The expression “who knows the power of thy wrath,” equivalent to “thy wrath as it is made its strength,” is in the first instance an expression of painful lamentation over the inconceivable blindness of men; it however contains within it the heart-felt wish that it may be otherwise, and the prayer that God would alter it, which in Psalms 90:12 rises out of the lamentation. The הודע there refers manifestly to the יודע here. Luther: “This complaint also contains a prayer in it. For Moses wishes that such pestilential security may be torn out of his heart, and out of the hearts of all men, and that all hearts may be animated by faith, so that men may believe that such a thing is true and may be alarmed at such great wrath of God.” “As thy fear” is to be understood as equivalent to “in proportion as is demanded by that fear of thee, that piety which is becoming in thy people.” Several explain after the example of Venema: according to thy dreadfulness, according to the infinite measure of which in God, are his wrath against sin and his punishment of sin. But “the fear of God” is a phrase of constant occurrence in the sense of “fear before God,’’ (compare Deuteronomy 2:25, Psalms 5:7), and on the other hand there is only one passage which can be referred to in the sense of dreadfulness—viz., Ezekiel 1:18, a writer who supplies so many anomalous expressions, and even in this one passage the above sense depends upon a false exposition, compare Gesen. Thes.
For what object the Psalmist in Psalms 90:12 wishes his days to be numbered, appears from the reference of the הודע to the יודע of the preceding verse, according to which to number the days and to know the wrath of God must be strictly connected together. May God, the sense is, lead us to lay rightly to heart the brevity of our life, thus cause us to know the greatness of his wrath, the depth of our corruption, and in this way lead us to repentance. Luther: “Such a thing would never have come into my mind as to pray for this, if I had not seen that Moses prayed here for it with all earnestness and valour. For I thought that the hearts of all men were as full of fear and terror as mine is. But if we carefully examine we shall find there are scarcely ten in ten thousand moved by these things as they ought to be; all the others live as if there were no God, and no death. This is the greatest misery, and the one to be most deeply deplored, that men even in death dream of life. There are certainly to be found some men of experience who feel this misery very severely without any such prayer, but the greater part do not feel it; for these generally live in such a way that they value their moment of life as if it were an eternal existence. The prayer which Moses here pens is necessary for these.” The כן on which so much ingenuity has been expended, serves to mark the importance of this knowledge to be imparted only through the favour of God. Arnd: “We are here told that this knowledge comes not from flesh and blood, but from God.” “ Thus teach us,” is equivalent to “ this teach us.” The ונבא is not to be translated according to Ewald, § 621, by “and to bring,” but § 618, “that we may bring.” For as the prayer here is closely connected with the meditation in Psalms 90:6-10, it can refer directly only to the knowledge of the relation represented there; and the desire for a wise heart can only come into notice as the effect of this knowledge. The הביא never signifies “to carry away,” “to obtain,” but always “to make,” “to bring.” The most natural construction is to supply with Abenesra בקרבנן or בנו , into our inward parts or into us. The translation “that we may bring forward as the best offering” would be admissible only if הביא were a word commonly applied to sacrifices, which it is not; only in this case לך would be wanting. Süsskind and Stier are without any good reason inclined to find in this passage an intimation of immortality: “for in what should that wisdom consist which arises from a knowledge of the brevity of our life, if not in the effort after a more extended duration?” The wisdom which is got from a consideration of the brevity of our life, and of the wrath of God manifested in that brevity, consists in fearing God and eschewing evil, Job 28:28, in keeping the words of his covenant and doing accordingly, Deuteronomy 29:9, and thus preparing for him the way to fulfil the prayer in Psalms 90:13-17, that he would, at least within the boundary of our brief life-time, manifest his favour, and withdraw his punishing hand.
In Psalms 90:13-17, the second prayer: after the knowledge of the brevity of our existence, and of the greatness of his wrath, and upon the ground of this, and of the repentance called forth by it, may God impart to his Church favour and deliverance inside this narrow existence, instead of the punishment and misery which she is now suffering.
Ver. 13. Turn back, O Lord, how long! and let it repent thee of thy servants. Ver. 14. Satisfy us in the morning with thy mercy, and grant that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Ver. 15. Make us glad like to the days in which thou didst afflict us, the years when we saw evil. Ver. 16. Show to thy servants thy doing, and thy glory to their children. Ver. 17. And may the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us, and the work of our hand confirm upon us, yea, the work of our hand confirm!
The “turn back,” in Psalms 90:13, is to be supplemented out of “let it repent thee” of the second clause, “of the wrath which now lies upon thy servants” (comp. Exodus 32:12, “Turn back from the fierceness of thy wrath, and let it repent thee of the evil concerning thy people,” Jeremiah 4:28), and also out of the relation to what goes before, where the Church had prayed that he would make her turn back from the wickedness of her heart. The נחם has, in Niph. and Hithp., only a double sense, to comfort one’s self, Genesis 27:42, Genesis 37:35, and to repent, Numbers 23:19, Deuteronomy 32:36, “And it repented him of his servants,” ועל עבדיו יתנחם—on which Psalms 135:14 depends—and Exodus 32:12, Exodus 32:14, “And it repented the Lord of the evil which he had said he would do to his people”—to this Jonah 2:13 refers, the preceding passage is taken from the Pentateuch
Judges 2:18; Jeremiah 15:6. Those senses flow easily from the fundamental sense, the quieting of the excited affection: not so, however, a third one, which has been arbitrarily adopted, and applied here in more ways than one, “to have compassion on.” Of the two ascertained senses, the one to repent is the only one that is suitable here; and it is also confirmed by the two remarkably accordant parallel passages from the Pentateuch, Exodus 32:12, and Deuteronomy 32:36 in the former passage, the Niph. is a very marked point of connection, and the same may be said of “for thy servant “ in the second, to which the “of evil for thy people” in the first serves as a commentary. In reference to the sense, Calvin correctly remarks: “According to the usual phraseology of Scripture, God is said to repent, when, after dissipating sadness and giving again occasion for joy, he appears as if he had changed;” comp. on the repentance of God, the Beitr. P. iii. p. 453 ss. In reference to “in the morning,” in Psalms 90:14, comp. at Psalms 59:16.
In reference to the stat. constr. יְ מות and שְ נות in Psalms 90:15, comp. Ew. § 210. The ימות very remarkably occurs only here and in Deuteronomy 32:7; in other passages it is always ימים . There it occurs in like manner as here, in connection with שנות , and manifestly this connection has occasioned the peculiar termination. Jo, Arnd: “For we have seen it in those who have lived before us. How didst thou gladden Noah after the flood, Lot after the destruction of Sodom, Jacob after his distress in the famine, Joseph after his imprisonment, and the children of Israel after the captivity! These are all glasses in which we find this word written: after trouble. God again makes glad.”
The doing of God is, according to the connection and the parallel, only a salutary doing. The Psalmist prays, in the first instance, only that God would make himself known very visibly in his deeds. The assertion, “The poet is longing after some particular mighty deed of God,” has no foundation in the words; comp., for example, Psalms 92:4, “For thou makest me glad, O Lord, by thy deed; I rejoice over the works of thy hand.” If it were so, we must conceive him to be thinking upon the possession of Canaan; comp. Psalms 44:1.
In reference to the beauty of the Lord, in Psalms 90:17, comp. at Psalms 27:4; may it be upon us is equivalent to, may it be made known in our experience. By “the work of the hands,” according to the parallel passages of the Pentateuch, we cannot suppose any particular undertaking, but only the collective doings to be meant; comp. Deuteronomy 14:29, “that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hands which thou doest,” Deuteronomy 16:13, Deuteronomy 24:19, Deuteronomy 28:12, Deuteronomy 30:9. “To confirm” is “to bring about,” “to accomplish.” The עלינו ,—because the promoting comes from above.
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Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 90". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://www.studylight.org/
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